Hershey Felder

A Man and a Piano

Review of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Westport Country Playhouse

He wrote “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” as well as an estimated 1500 other songs. Irving Berlin is one of the “household name” composers of the great American songbook. And one of the few who wrote both lyrics and melodies. Hershey Felder, who has formed a kind of theatrical cottage industry of one-man shows about famous composers—including Gershwin, Chopin and Beethoven—brings to his enactment of Berlin a warmth that makes this tour of the man’s life and music truly entertaining. The show, now playing at Westport Country Playhouse through August 3, manages to incorporate the heartbreaks in Berlin’s life without getting bogged down, creating a portrait of a unique talent who, no matter what life served up, could find his way to a tune—for a career that ran from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Berlin was born Israel Beilin, in what is now Belarus in 1898, of Jewish parents who came to this country after their town was burned down in a pogrom. The show is full of what Berlin would have known, in Yiddish, as schmaltz and chutzpah. And that’s to its credit. The story of Old World Jews making good in the new world of U.S. entertainment has a deep resonance in what people like to call “the American Dream.”  That Berlin furnished two of the key theme songs of our great secular religion—in which we Americans like to worship ourselves—makes him a fitting hero in these times when pundits and politicians are so keen to assert what America really is. The chutzpah serves Berlin’s rags-to-riches climb; the schmaltz is the emotional mainstay of songs full of popular sentiment that manage not to pander, mostly.

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder) in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder) in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Berlin’s story begins with the event that undermines those who would flout the part that immigration played in making twentieth-century America what it was. And he served in World War I—entertaining troops as an enlisted man—and entertained troops in World War II, as a celebrity. In other words, his immigrant origins and his patriotic bona fides can’t be denied. For both wars, Berlin wrote revues—the primary form for much of his career, a career based on his incredible knack of writing songs for any occasion. That knack began when, as a boy on the streets after his father—a trained cantor—died, he got work as a “singing waiter,” entertaining barflies with risqué lyrics to well-known songs. In the Twenties, he struck unprecedented gold with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a song that both tweaked the craze for ragtime and capitalized on it.

From there, as Felder shows, moving us through the years and the ups and downs, there are wonderful tunes—like “What’ll I Do” and “Always,” songs that seep nostalgia even for viewers who weren’t alive when they were hits—and there are peppy numbers that show off Berlin’s charm, like “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” from World War 1, and, much later, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” a song forever associated with Ethel Merman, whose ear-needling delivery Felder mimics.

Along the way there are also exemplary moments that instill in the audience the background to some familiar numbers. For instance, “God Bless America” was buried away in a drawer until its right moment came. And “White Christmas” was not only a holiday card to Berlin’s second wife, an Irish Catholic socialite, but also commemorates a personal loss. And, from As Thousands Cheer, a show in which the songs took inspiration from contemporary headlines, the great song “Suppertime” was sung by Ethel Waters as an African American wife’s lament for a lynched husband—in 1933. Felder-as-Berlin points out the times when he riled public opinion or made a bad decision—usually due to someone else’s advice.

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder)

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder)

Throughout, there’s a becoming pedagogical element to the presentation, since Felder’s Berlin is all-too-aware that he’s an old fossil—the show’s opening conceit is that the audience to his 110-minute reminisce are carolers he invited into his elegant home on Beekman Place—and that understanding his career requires a history lesson. The fact that the show never quite loses momentum in the face of so much information is remarkable. Felder is well-practiced at the personable quality necessary to keep us listening, and the presentation is aided by evocative projections of photos and even footage of Al Jolson singing “Blue Skies” in The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie.”

Felder’s Berlin has the characteristic glasses, eyebrows, and hair, but Felder is a much more skilled musician than Berlin, and that lets him give a musical lesson as well, letting us see how Berlin’s sense of melody, while simple, is, at its best, distinctive. As a vocalist, Felder keeps to a delivery I assume is patterned on Berlin’s limited skills, to some extent, and as a style it serves to remind us of how dated the originals of these songs are. We hear none of the crooning that a singer like Bing Crosby brought to “White Christmas,” and one of the show’s more effective devices is using audience sing-along participation to demonstrate that not only are Berlin’s songs well known, they have been learned “by heart.”

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

As a quick intro to a formidable talent, the show has much to recommend it, and as a theatrical device that lets us consider the skill of wartime entertainments, the struggle in the lives of immigrants, the competitiveness of show biz and the luck and persistence, the personal resonance in any artist’s relation to his own work, and the sprawling effort, over the decades, to remain true to what America wants, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin lets us feel the stirring identification that comes with being audience to a great career lovingly evoked.

 

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Hershey Felder
Directed by Trevor Hay
Starring Hershey Felder

Consulting Producer: Joel Zwick; Lighting Design: Richard Norwood; Projection Co-Design: Christopher Ash; Projection Co-Design: Lawrence Siefert; Sound Designer/Production Manager: Erik Cartensen; Costume & Scenic Artist: Stacey Nezda; Historical and Biographical Research: Meghan Maiya; Producer: Eva Price

Westport Country Playhouse
July 16-August 3, 2019

Honor Thy Mother

Review of The Pianist of Willesden Lane at Hartford Stage

We could all probably tell stories of sacrifices our parents made for us, but, for most, the particulars would be rather mundane. The story of sacrifice behind The Pianist of Willesden Lane, now playing at Hartford Stage, is anything but.

Mona Golabek in  The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane

Piano virtuoso Mona Golabek plays her mother Lisa Jura, the eponymous heroine of the play, who recounts her adventures as a child, during the rise of Naziism in Austria, her escape to London, and her eventual success as a concert pianist. Jura’s parents placed her upon the Kindertransport—a train that carried over 10,000 Jewish children from persecution in Nazi-occupied Europe to freedom in England—not knowing if she would arrive safely and having to choose her over her two sisters as the family could only afford one seat on the train.

The sisters, it turns out, did escape by other means, though the parents did not. With that kind of dire incentive, Jura, whose mother, Malka, urged her to depend upon music for help in dark times, went on to study classical piano and, in turn, taught her daughter. The bond between Lisa Jura and Mona Golabek is the spiritual tie that animates this straight-forward and inspiring tale, and that bond is based on music and the piano. Golabek, who speaks directly to the audience and recounts vignettes from her memoir of her mother, The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival, lets the music of Grieg, Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin establish the world that all three women—Malka, Lisa, and Mona—shared. We hear in Golabek’s expressive live playing the passion Lisa brought to the keyboard, so that Golabek’s musical performance pays tribute to her mother’s own development as a musician, using music to tell the story of how playing piano created both an identity and a consolation for Lisa.

The story opens with a very dramatic moment: Lisa, on her way to her piano lesson in Vienna in 1938, encounters a brusque Nazi soldier, then her teacher, after greeting her ashamedly, tells her he is now forbidden to teach Jewish students. The fact that she can no longer study music, it seems, is what determines the choice of Lisa as the child who will go to England. The departure itself is not over-dramatized, with Golabek and director Hershey Felder staying true to the nature of a memory play. We know from the start that our teller lives to have a successful career and to raise an adult child. As a survivor’s tale, The Pianist of Willesden Lane keeps before us the luck and determination needed to succeed, both of which Lisa Jura had, and of course talent. We see her resourcefulness when the family she was intended to stay with can’t house her, and she leaves the home they place her in, where her piano playing is not deemed “a skill,” to find a much more nurturing home on Willesden Lane. Later, her wartime stint in a piano bar playing Gershwin and show-tunes for soldiers earns her not a few admirers. One follows her to America, where Lisa goes to continue her career, and eventually marries her, becoming Mona’s father.

The storytelling is abetted by large screens disguised as period gilt mirrors hanging above the handsome Steinway piano onstage. The screens show family photos and clips from the streets of Vienna and London, and of the D-day invasion, helping to sketch the world that acts as backdrop to Lisa’s upbeat story. Golabek says her mother would tell her stories of wartime while teaching her the piano, and the play, as a dramatization of the daughter’s memoir, lets audiences experience the interplay of music and memory much as Golabek herself must. Particularly effective in this regard is the scene when Lisa auditions for the Royal Academy and a voice offstage instructs her when to switch between the pieces she has learned with much painstaking aid from her other inmates at Willesden Lane. The well-known bits of Beethoven, Chopin and others are both showpieces and a learned language between mother and daughter.

Felder and Golabek strike a nice balance: the music is Romantic, the storytelling is restrained. The veracity of the tale is aided by Golabek’s lack of staginess or pretension. Mimicking accents and mannerisms when the story calls for it, she is a rather self-effacing and untheatrical story-teller, letting musicianship, each time she steps to the piano, shine as the true hero of the tale. Without music her mother might not have survived or at least might have had little to live for, and without music she would not have an enduring connection to her mother and the grandmother she never knew.

The emotional tide of surviving surges up at the end when the play pays tribute to those who were able to make such difficult decisions for the sake of their children over themselves. We realize that The Pianist of Willesden Lane is an extended form of keeping the Commandment to honor thy father and mother. The production at Hartford Stage, with its very elegant staging on the semi-circular playing space, makes the show seem more like “a talk” with music rather than “a show” and that’s all to the good, establishing the bona fides of this direct and fascinating tale of destruction, hope, love, talent, and music.

Mona Golabek in The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen

Adapted and Directed by Hershey Felder

Scenic Design: Trevor Hay, Hershey Felder; Costume Design: Jaclyn Maduff; Lighting Designer: Jason Bieber; Original Lighting Design: Christopher Rynne; Sound Design: Erik Cartensen; Projection Design: Andrew Wilder, Greg Sowizdrzal; Dramaturg: Cynthia Caywood, PhD; Associate Direction: Trevor Hay; Production Manager: Erik Cartensen; Production Stage Manager: Kaitlin Lavella Kelly; Scenic Decoration: Meghan Maiya, Emma Hay, Jordan Hay; Hartford Stage Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Hartford Stage, March 26-April 26, 2015